Opportunities Missed: Which Teams Have Failed to Sign the Most Talent

Baseball’s most famous unsigned draftee is arguably J.D. Drew, who along with superagent Scott Boras, waged a summer-long battle against the Phillies and the MLB draft itself back in 1997. I’d describe that conflict as a draw, for while Drew didn’t win freedom and earned the eternal enmity of Phillies fans, he did get the signing bonus he wanted the following year with the Cardinals.

There are a lot of reasons a player can go unsigned. Sometimes it’s simply a matter of money. Players at the bottom of the pecking order, without a significant signing bonus, have to figure out how to subsist for years on a paltry minor league salary just to take the long shot at having a major league career. Sometimes they just don’t want to play for the team that drafted them. Players with family connections to a team are sometimes drafted in late rounds as a courtesy even though the org knows they won’t sign. Other times, players are hoping for a better draft position in a future year or want to honor a promise they made to their college program, either out of a desire to play ball there or take advantage of getting an education.

From J.D. Drew to Aron Amundson, baseball’s only 100th round pick ever, the stories of why a player doesn’t sign can vary. Thousands of players have gone unsigned only to eventually resurface and end up playing in the major leagues anyway. In 2,584 cases covering 1,983 different players, a draft pick has gone unsigned and later made it to the majors. 439 players didn’t sign at least twice, with the record for a future major leaguer being Luis Medina of the Cleveland Indians. Medina remained unsigned his first five times (MLB had a January draft at the time), getting drafted as high as eighth overall on his fifth refusal. Medina eventually signed the sixth time he was drafted, in the ninth round, his lowest draft position since the first time he was selected.

In the early 1990s, baseball’s owners attempted to short-circuit the whole concept of negotiating with amateurs — not for the last time — by increasing the number of years a team retained control of a player’s rights from one year to five. The players objected and it was ruled in arbitration that owners had to negotiate draft changes with the Major League Baseball Players Association.

For teams, especially before bonus pools, an unsigned player represents lost potential. While there are always players who will remain steadfast in their refusal to sign with a particular club, as Ted Dibiase put it, everybody’s got a price. Jakob Junis is one example of this phenomenon, falling to the 29th round because he wanted to go to college so that he could be a hitter. The Royals had a secret weapon up their sleeve to get Junis to change his mind: $675,000.

Amateur deals are small potatoes compared to what major league clubs spend on talent, and the draft is an unfortunately useful tool for keeping salaries down. Is there anyone out there who seriously believes that if Adley Rutschman had been a free agent, he couldn’t have destroyed the $8.1 million he got from the Orioles? This is a league, after all, that found someone to pay $72.5 million for Rusney Castillo and $68.5 million for Yasmany Tomás. Teams in the past had the ability to splash cash at minor leaguers and close their deals.

So which teams have lost the most value from being unable to sign their draftees? To find out, I went through the list of players and looked at their career WAR as if the end of their age 29 season, which will usually cover their cost-controlled years with a couple extra to take into consideration the value of getting to sign below-market deals that cover free agency. I also made sure to avoid double-counting (and in a few occasions, triple-counting), when a team failed to sign a player multiple times. After all, the Florida Marlins couldn’t sign Adam LaRoche both times they drafted him (he refused to sign both times and was later drafted by the Braves in the 29th round) without some kind of multiverse transportation device, which I’m both sure doesn’t exist and wouldn’t be in the Marlins’ budget anyhow. On to the teams!

Wins for Unsigned Players Before Age 30
Team WAR Wins per Draft Best Player
New York Mets 504.9 9.2 Roger Clemens
St. Louis Cardinals 408.4 7.4 Mike Moore
Los Angeles Dodgers 395.6 7.2 Tom Seaver
Oakland Athletics 345.6 6.3 Jim Sundberg
Minnesota Twins 336.7 6.1 Steve Garvey
Boston Red Sox 332.1 6.0 Mark Teixeira
New York Yankees 326.4 5.9 Fred Lynn
Baltimore Orioles 314.0 5.7 Dave Winfield
Milwaukee Brewers 282.4 5.5 Nomar Garciaparra
Los Angeles Angels 291.6 5.3 Buster Posey
San Francisco Giants 280.2 5.1 Barry Bonds
Chicago Cubs 273.5 5.0 Mark Langston
Pittsburgh Pirates 262.0 4.8 Chris Bosio
Chicago White Sox 254.4 4.6 Jeff Weaver
Washington Nationals 231.3 4.5 Mark McGwire
Seattle Mariners 194.3 4.5 Barry Zito
Tampa Bay Rays 106.6 4.4 Jacoby Ellsbury
Cleveland Indians 236.7 4.3 Tim Lincecum
San Diego Padres 213.8 4.2 Todd Helton
Texas Rangers 226.0 4.1 Barry Zito
Atlanta Braves 225.3 4.1 Anthony Rendon
Detroit Tigers 222.3 4.0 Andy Messersmith
Kansas City Royals 204.9 4.0 Will Clark
Toronto Blue Jays 170.6 4.0 Kris Bryant
Colorado Rockies 102.8 3.7 Chris Sale
Philadelphia Phillies 190.5 3.5 Chuck Knoblauch
Cincinnati Reds 188.3 3.4 Nick Markakis
Houston Astros 183.7 3.3 Scott Erickson
Arizona Diamondbacks 49.8 2.1 Ian Kinsler
Miami Marlins 49.4 1.8 Cliff Lee

Too bad the Giants missed out on that Barry Bonds! Well, they missed out on the inexpensive one, at least.

At first glance, the expansion teams appear to have done somewhat better than the “legacy” franchises over the course of the draft. It’s not just having been around for more years either, as I’ve ranked teams based on the average wins per draft that they participated in. Now, a higher percentage of the expansion teams’ drafts have taken place in the bonus pool world, but it also seems likely that teams have just gotten better at assessing signability than they were in the early parts of the draft history. Let’s look at the teams that have let the most talent slip away.

New York Mets

It’s not that the Mets couldn’t sign Roger Clemens, but they just didn’t want to pay the asking price. Scout Jim Terrell was told that the Mets would only offer Clemens $7,500, a number so small that Terrell offered to put up $7,500 of his own money, enough to shame the Mets into increasing their offer to $15,000. The final Mets offer was $20,000, but Clemens wanted $25,000, because his mother would lose her $450 a month in social security if he left college. The team balked and off went Clemens.

But the Mets had to miss on more than Clemens to get to this spot. Other players the Mets were unable to sign include John Olerud, Rafael Palmeiro, Matt Williams, Ron Cey, Burt Hooton, and Darin Erstad. At least the team was able to get Olerud back for a few seasons later on.

St. Louis Cardinals

I have to admit to being surprised that Mike Moore had enough WAR to top this list, but FIP thinks he was really underrated while playing on some quite dreadful Mariners teams in the early 80s. It’s the rest of the names that sting the most. Paul Molitor was willing to sign, with only a partial scholarship to college, but negotiations fell short over a $6,000 disagreement. Max Scherzer was a local, but intended to go to college and the Cardinals had little interest in buying their 43rd round draft pick out of his decision. When the Cardinals lost the 1987 World Series in seven games, Gary Gaetti and Roy Smalley, two unsigned draftees, were drinking bubbly for the Twins.

Los Angeles Dodgers

The Dodgers have developed a lot of superstars, but they missed out on a few more, most notably Tom Seaver. Seaver didn’t intend to sign cheaply, wanting $70,000 as the team’s 10th-round draft pick. That’s $50,000 more than anyone who goes undrafted will get this draft, a half-century later! The Dodgers balked and he went on to become Terrific elsewhere. I didn’t add Seaver to the Braves list as his pick was voided by commissioner Spike Eckert on the dubious argument that since USC played a couple of exhibition games (Seaver didn’t play), their season wasn’t actually over, so the Braves couldn’t draft him after all.

The Dodgers did eventually get Chase Utley (who turned down $850,000) and David Price (who went to Vanderbilt on an academic scholarship) back at later points in their careers, though I suppose baseball has to return for us to see Price in Dodger blue in a game that counts.

Other unsigned Dodgers include Paul Goldschmidt (49th round), Jason Thompson (15th), and Randy Wolf (25th).

Oakland Athletics

Jim Sundberg declined quickly, so if you’re my age or younger, you probably don’t remember him first-hand. My impression of him comes from his decline years with the Royals and Rangers (second stint), but in his 20s, Sundberg won five Gold Gloves and from ages 26 to 29, hit .279/.355/.380. The Rangers almost lost Sundberg as well, with one of the team’s scouts telling him that he couldn’t hit or throw and wouldn’t make the big leagues while the Rangers still offered in $6,000. Texas offered him $10,000 and incentives the second time they drafted him, which did the trick.

The A’s didn’t miss out on any Hall of Fame talent, but a lot of above-average players, names like Alvin Davis, Danny Jackson, and Bob Horner, failed to sign. Recent misses include Mike Zunino and Mike Leake, neither of whom would be franchise-altering performers.

Minnesota Twins

It’s hard to fault the Twins for not signing George Springer, who by all accounts was determined to go to college at the time. Minnesota also lost Steve Garvey and Mark Grace to college decisions. More embarrassing was losing Travis Lee and while he didn’t have a long or illustrious career in the majors, it’s particularly mortifying to lose your first-round pick due to a rule blunder.

The Twins also missed out on J.D. Martinez, though in fairness, almost everyone missed out on J.D. Martinez; the Tigers were only able to sign him as a free agent because the Astros released him after being unable to find a trade partner.

Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for ESPN.com from 2010-2018, a regular guest on a number of radio shows and podcasts, and a voting BBWAA member. He also maintains a terrible Twitter account at @DSzymborski.

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3 years ago

It sucks to have missed out on one of the best pitchers of all time, but Roger Clemens was SUCH a jerk that I’m glad I never had to hold my nose to root for him on the Mets.